15 Jul 2018

17 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Nineteen: At Sea From Tristan Da Cunha To St Helena

Today was the final day at sea before we arrived at St Helena. There was more expectation from the passengers that we would see more Seabirds & more people on deck looking.
Los Bandidos (John & Jemi Holmes): John has been publishing a number of Blog Posts of the Odyssey which can be found here. It is well worth a look as John is a great photographer
Hadie (left) & Roy confirming that the benches on the top deck behind the bridge were still popular
Yorkshire Geoff Dodds: My cabin mate had finally left editing the Yorkshire Bird Report & appeared in the sun
An early morning small party of Dolphins looked promising as they were heading straight for the Plancius. We were all hoping for some bow waving, but clearly, they had other ideas as this was the best photo I obtained & we lost them soon after picking them up.
Dolphin sp: You can't win them all
As we were approximately 250 nautical miles from the St Helena at dawn, we were still out in the deep oceans & would remain so for the rest of the day. Consequently, it was still a fairly quiet day at sea for Seabirds. I saw more individuals than than on the last two days put together, but that wasn't hard given I had only seen nine Seabirds over those two days. The commonest species were Arctic Terns which were moving North, but all remained distant. There were also a few Red-billed Tropicbirds seen during the day, including one which came overhead to check out the Plancius.
Red-billed Tropicbird: The could be briefly very inquisitive of the Plancius
Red-billed Tropicbird: This is the nominate aethereus which occurs on the offshore Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, as well as, St Helena & Ascension Island
The Seabird highlight occurred late morning as we picked up a party of six Storm-petrels resting on the sea a few hundred metres in front of the Plancius.
Mixed party of Storm-petrels resting on the sea
Mixed Storm-petrel party taking off: They didn't have a choice as they were right in the path of the Plancius
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Band-rumped Storm-petrels have until recent years been considered to be a single subspecies. However, given two species have now been split so far, then it is worth seeing them at as many breeding islands as possible. Given we are within a day of St Helena, then it is a reasonable assumption this is one of the St Helena population. However, it is safer to see them at one of the St Helena colonies to be certain, in case St Helena Storm-petrel is split in the future. Identification of these Band-rumped Storm-petrel & related species at sea, well away from breeding grounds is in its infancy
Band-rumped Storm-petrel: Another view of the same individual
Band-rumped Storm-petrel taxonomy is complex. A few years ago, Band-rumped Storm-petrels were understood to breed on islands in the Tropical Atlantic & Pacific Oceans including the Portuguese Berlengas Islands, Madeira, Canaries, Azores, Cape Verde, Ascension Island, St Helena, as well as, the Galapagos, Hawaii & islands belonging to Japan. In the last decade, studies into the breeding times of year, DNA, vocalisation & morphology have identified that there are probably three additional species which breed on the Tropical North Atlantic islands. Further studies are now underway to extend these studies into some of the other Atlantic populations of Band-rumped Storm-petrel & it is likely that this will reveal additional species when these studies have been completed. The current understanding of the former Band-rumped Storm-petrel species is:-
  • Cape Verde Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma jabejabe) breeds in Cape Verde from Oct to June
  • Monteiro's Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma monteiroi) breeds in the Azores in Mar to Oct
  • Band-rumped Storm-petrels (also known as Madeiran Storm-petrel) (Oceanodroma castro) breeds around Madeira including the Desertas Islands, the Salvagens Islands & the Canaries in Mar to Oct
  • Grant's Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma granti) breeds in the Berlengas Islands, Madeira & the Canaries & associated islands & Azores in Aug to Mar. This has been proposed as a future split (but is yet to be described)
  • Studies of the Band-rumped Storm-petrels which breed on Ascension Island & St Helena are only just starting.
A single Leach's Storm-petrel (top left) was tucked into the group of five Band-rumped Storm-petrels
Leach's Storm-petrel: Close up from the last photo. Note, the strong pale wing panel, deeply forked tail & dark central rump band
Leach's Storm-petrel (top left) and Band-rumped Storm-petrels: The Band-rumped Storm-petrels have square-ended tails & white rumps & also show a noticeable pale wing panel. They seem to have shorter wings than the Leach's Storm-petrel
Leach's Storm-petrel (top left) and Band-rumped Storm-petrels: Note, how the pale wing panel
Leach's Storm-petrel (top left) and Band-rumped Storm-petrels: The stripe in the rump of the Leach's Storm-petrel is clearly obvious
Additionally, I saw a good number of Flying Fish seen with the same four species that we had seen on the previous day. I also saw a Smurf which is believed to be an immature Flying Fish. They are only a few inches long, have small forewings & are only capable of flying a few metres before they drop back into the sea. Given the short distance of the flight, I never managed to get any photos of the Smurfs.
Bandwing Flying Fish
Bandwing Flying Fish: Another individual which dropped back into the sea (a few frames after this photo)
Bandwing Flying Fish: A third well-marked individual showing they can control the flight by closing the rear wings
Bandwing Flying Fish: The third individual opened its rear wings (a few frames after the previous photo)
Bandwing Flying Fish: A fourth individual. They have a very distinctive broad white eyering which can only be seen when they change direction so they are not flying directly away from the Plancius
Atlantic Flying Fish

14 Jul 2018

14 July 18 - A Local Hairstreak

For the last few years I've planned to look for a local speciality: White-letter Hairstreak. Numbers of this easily overlooked Butterfly crashed in the 1970s & early 1980s when Dutch Elm disease swept through the UK & wiped out most of the UK's Elm trees within a decade. I've been aware of a local site for a few years, but I have never managed to find a combination of suitable weather & my availability at weekends within the flying period. My friend who discovered this site has generally only seen them flying high around the Elms & has only seen one low down nectaring, so this has been another factor in the priority to have a look. Having been unable to get out for the last few days to the site, this morning was another hot, still day & so I suggested to mate, Peter Moore that we gave it a look. Peter picked me up late morning & a few minutes later we were leaving the parked car. There was a bit of a hike along footpaths before getting to the actual site. Once there we spread out to check a large patch of Thistles where they had been seen before. No joy in the patch of Thistles I started checking, but a whistle from Peter suggested a more positive outcome where he was. I swiftly walked over, but I didn't really need to hurry as it was still nectaring when we left about an hour later. Given there are well known sites in Dorset, this site will remain as a vague Swanage site, although Peter & I will forward details of the sighting to the county recorder. Having had problems with collectors at Map Butterflies site, then I won't be broadcasting specific, but not well known, sites of other locally rare Butterflies.
White-letter Hairstreak: Initial views
White-letter Hairstreak: Good mystery photo
White-letter Hairstreak
White-letter Hairstreak: It spent a fair bit of time upside down to frustrate the photographers. It worked as I went looking for another, but failed to find one
White-letter Hairstreak
White-letter Hairstreak
White-letter Hairstreak: I'm assuming with this body shape that this is a female
There was a good selection of other Butterflies present. In total I saw thirteen species there. A Holly Blue in my garden was a fourteenth species for the day.
Small Copper
Brown Argus
Painted Lady: It was good to see such a pristine individual
Silver-washed Fritillary
One of the problems I though of as I was walking to the site was how to identify an Elm tree. Given their relatively scarcity then it was a tree I wasn't familiar with. Fortunately, Peter knew. He said they had a distinctive asynchronous leaf shape.
The distinctive asynchronous Elm Leaf shape
Not bad for an hour of looking for local Butterflies.

13 Jul 2018

16 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Eighteen: At Sea From Tristan Da Cunha To St Helena - Mantas & More Flying Fish

The third full day at sea been Tristan da Cunha and St Helena had been an excellent day for Cetaceans with a pod of Strap-toothed Beaked Whales, a close old male Blainville's Beaked Whale (which I saw, but failed to get any photos of) & a lone Dwarf Pygmy Whale. However, in between it was another good day for Flying Fish, albeit I didn't see as many Small Clearwings as seen on the previous day. But I did managed to photograph three new species of Flying Fish.
Geoff has gone full blown Bush Tucker Man today to keep the sun off while chasing Flying Fish: He has the strong Ozzie accent to go with the look
On the previous day I had seen a couple of Four-winged Flying Fish, but I failed to get a photo of these common & large Flying Fish. The Small Clearwings were around 6 inches long & only had two wings. The Four-winged Flying Fish were about a foot long, had two long forewings & two smaller rear wings. Four-winged Flying Fish were distinctive as they had sooty grey forewings with an off white trailing edge to the forewings. They look similar to the Necromancer that Steve Howell covers in the identification pdf guide to Flying Fish. However, it seems that Howell's Necromancers are probably a related species, rather than the Four-winged Flying Fish (Hirundichthys affinis).
Four-winged Flying Fish (Hirundichthys affinis): They were about a foot long, with sooty grey wings & an obvious off white trailing edge to the forewings. The small hindwings are clear & the lower tail is black
I saw Four-winged Flying Fish on most days from today until the final day at sea before Cape Verde. On some days I saw several hundred Four-winged Flying Fish. The IUCN Red List describes them as occurring from the Gulf of Mexico & Eastern Caribbean to the Gulf Stream & off the African coast from Mauritania to Angola.
Four-winged Flying Fish (Hirundichthys affinis): Generally, they appeared on their own, although it wasn't unusual for a few others to be seen soon after
Four-winged Flying Fish (Hirundichthys affinis): They tended to make several glides, with the tail re-entering the water to get another kick for the next glide. They often changed directions between glides. The overall glide could last over 30 seconds & the distance travelled could be up to about 60 - 80 metres
Four-winged Flying Fish (Hirundichthys affinis): They are quite good at being able to change direction by how they angled their forewings & tail
I also saw a couple of other less common species of Flying Fish including this superb Bandwing Flying Fish which was another foot long, four-winged Flying Fish.
Bandwing Flying Fish (Cheilopogon exsiliens): I only saw a few of these good looking Flying Fish which showed a pale wing band. I have been able to get an identification thanks to the internet. They range from about 25 degrees South to Cape Verde in the Atlantic & therefore aren't covered by Howell's identification PDF. This species was also photographed by Graham Ekins on the Plancius in 2012 between Tristan da Cunha & St Helena
Bandwing Flying Fish (Cheilopogon exsiliens): A more distant view of the same individual. They are about a foot long & look superficially similar to the Four-winged Flying Fish, but have this noticeable pale wing bar
Bandwing Flying Fish (Cheilopogon exsiliens): A pity this wasn't sharp, but it does show how they can flick their tail to gain lift to keep gliding
Bandwing Flying Fish (Cheilopogon exsiliens): This was another individual which showed an extreme pale wing bar
The other new species was Atlantic Flying Fish. This was another foot long, four-winged Flying Fish. It looks to similar to Bar-tailed Clearwing covered in Howell's identification PDF, but Atlantic Flying Fish is restricted to the Atlantic & so Bar-tailed Clearwing must be another related species.
Atlantic Flying Fish (Cheilopogon melanurus): This seemed a scarce species along our route. I only saw them on three days on both sides of St Helena
Atlantic Flying Fish (Cheilopogon melanurus): This is a large four-winged Flying Fish with clear wings with obvious veins & a dark tail. According to the IUCN Red List they are a common species occurring in the Gulf Stream in the Western Atlantic, as well as off Brazil & from Senegal to Angola
Atlantic Flying Fish (Cheilopogon melanurus): A series of tail flicks to get some fresh momentum
Atlantic Flying Fish (Cheilopogon melanurus): Just getting clear of the water
Atlantic Flying Fish (Cheilopogon melanurus): Take off for another glide
We also saw quite a few Small Clearwings which the other common species of Flying Fish that I saw most days until the last full day at sea before the Cape Verde islands.
Small Clearwing (Exocoetus volitans): They curve the forewings on take off
Small Clearwing (Exocoetus volitans): Once in glide, the forewings are flattened
Small Clearwing (Exocoetus volitans): Another taking off
Some of the Birders & Bird photographers on the Plancius might have been unimpressed with these Flying Fish as they were only Fish. I certainly didn't share that view. We got told as we got closer to St Helena that Flying Fish were one of the favourite foods of Red-footed Boobies & sometimes Red-footed Boobies would try to keep up with the Plancius, as the Plancius ended up flushing Flying Fish. I later saw this on a couple of occasions & this was something that made even the most focused Bird photographer appreciate the Flying Fish a little bit. 
Small Clearwing (Exocoetus volitans): This individual shows the pink central stripe that Steve Howell mentioned as a feature of Small Clearwings. It wasn't particularly clear on the individuals photographed on the previous day
Finally, it's time for a larger species of Fish. In the late afternoon we saw a set of confusing fins on the surface & there were still there when they passed the Plancius about 30 metres off the starboard side. I was struggling to get my head around what they were, but there was a shout (probably from Marijke or Hans) that there were a mating pair of Manta Rays. This initially left me just as confused as I've been lucky to scuba dive in Micronesia & see several Manta Rays passing over head. They were much bigger than the individuals were were watching on the Plancius. However, as there is more than one species of Manta Rays and perhaps this was one of the smaller species.
Manta Ray sp.: This was the first confusing view of a single pale tipped fin
Manta Ray sp.: It suddenly became very confusing as 3 fins appeared
Manta Ray sp.: Back to two fins
Manta Ray sp.: An obvious fin & a less obvious one
Manta Ray sp.: They were now a lot closer & while I was struggling to figure out what I was seeing at the time, looking at the photos now it was fairly obvious they were some sort of Manta Ray or something similar. But it is easier to figure this out without having an image on the camera constantly flashing
Manta Ray sp.: Note, the orange underwing in the previous photo is purely a paler grey underwing which was catching the strong orange glow from the setting sun (this photo was taken less than a second after the previous photo)
Manta Ray sp.
Manta Ray sp.: The underwing colours look a bit more realistic in this photo
It was a perfect evening to hang around on deck for the sunset & the mythical green flash. This time I thought I would also try capturing the green flash with the camera. Well both I & the camera failed to see a green flash. However, it was a great sunset.
Sunset: Supposedly, you aren't meant to look at the sun until the very last moment
Sunset: Well maybe I'll need to look on another night for the green flash. Although most days only had light cloud it was rare that there was no cloud on the horizon at sunset